Prague : The Musical City. The Old Town Square & Astronomical Clock
Back at the Wenceslas Square / Na Příkopě crossroads was only one remaining direction, toward The Old Town Square. Four directions, all with contrasting characters. The in-your-face, still-raw modern history of Narodni, the regal splendour of Wenceslas Square, to the skin-deep chic of Na Příkopě. My remaining route was instantly odle worlde, homely even.
I was no longer a wanderer here, more like a passenger hurried along a conveyor-belt of tourist-board, clockwork chintz. The side-streets tempted you to stray with their luxury coffee houses but there was only one irresistible direction, onward. As the road narrowed, restaurants, cafe’s and souvenir shops, crammed themselves into ever tighter spaces as the cobbles deteriorated and the clean lines of earlier gave way to a labyrinth of curving alleys and archways, culminating in a final bottleneck dominated by, of all things, a branch of Starbucks, and a welcome break from the chilling weather outside. My frozen hands clasped around the oversized mug, warming my spirits and readying me for what I’d hoped would be one of the stand-out sights of Prague.
As the torrent of eager tourists spilled out into a vast open courtyard. All our attention was immediately drawn to the world-famous Astronomical Clock to our right. Once described as “The Greatest Clock In the World”, there was little choice but to join the crowds stood directly before it on the stroke of the hour. And what can I say, as clocks go, The Orloj was a rather fabulous one……
…. It’s not just any old clock of course, its intricate workings and numerous dials and readings were years ahead of its time, and built by a genius who’s eye’s were removed to stop such a work of beauty ever being repeated again. Please visit http://wornandwound.com/time-off-wrist-astronomical-clock-prague/ for the full colourful and entertaining back-story.
I took up my position as the hour approached and the audience hushed in anticipation. The clock itself looked to have two large dials one atop the other, the lower dial seemed more ornate, more of a decoration, while the upper face contained a series of circular dials, hands, letter and numerals, I presumed this would show the astronomical dates of its title, but the sheer complexity was beyond me and just added to the building excitement. A number of sinister looking figurines also adorned the structure, accompanied by intriguing-looking doorways that maybe concealed a hidden secret.
On the chime of the hour and to everyone’s joy, the clock and it’s figurines sprang into life, a mechanical Punch and Judy show with the opening and closing doors providing a spot of tension to boot. This was pure, simple street entertainment for the ages, and a marvellous introduction to the Old Town Square.
The sheer magnificence of the twin-towered Church of Our Lady before Týn does take your breath away, and dominates the vast open courtyard. To say it resembles a Disneyland castle would demean it, but that’s the magical, misty, child-like feeling you get from just looking at it. As ever the prime real-estate of the courtyard boundaries are occupied by the usual rows of more-expensive-than-everywhere-else cafe’s and restaurants, but the grand history and stunning architecture of the place can’t be ignored.
The Old-town square feels like the historical, spiritual centre of Prague. It’s spider’s web of back-lanes and modern boutique shopping streets all converging on this one central plane. In one direction Cartier and Jimmy Choo, in another, fridge-magnet souvenir kiosks. Right in the thick of it all I managed to find an unassuming-looking Irish-bar called Caffrey’s (predictably), where I took a seat to contemplate over a Pilsner Urquell.
Prague is a vast city, with 22 numbered districts starting at Praha (Prague) 1 in the centre and working outwards towards the suburbs. I’d seen so much so far, but had still only really scratched the surface of Praha 1. At the time (2010) Prague was still relatively inexpensive, even in the tourist centre, but it certainly didn’t look cheap, far from it. Indeed, as I supped on my delicious but reasonably priced ale, whilst gawping at the stunning backdrop, Prague felt like the bargain of the century.
The vast plain of the courtyard before me was tingling with life and atmosphere. Organised tour groups, street theatre, buskers, and, as it was Christmas, the standard market. You just couldn’t be in a more Christmassy place, this side of the North Pole at least, as Good King Wenceslas rang through my head against the snowy backdrop of castles and the smell of roasted chestnuts, mulled wine and Bratwurst.
For completeness, more than anything, I headed back to the Astronomical clock and through a previously unexplored route. I’d passed too many cafes and restaurants by now to care about any of them, but I wandered on into the unknown anyway. I’m normally quite good with bearings and directions, but the winding, narrow lanes of the old town were a real test for my inner compass, and it was very easy to get lost and find yourself curving back where you started.
Just as the scenery was beginning to look a little samey and I considered heading back, I came across U Vejvodů, An unassuming bar/restaurant tucked away and easily miss-able. Initial impressions were of a stone-worked medieval Hobbit’s drinking hole, yet with re-reassuringly modern signage, and the character and branding of the more successful independent chains. I stopped in my tracks to savour the moment. This was going to be good.
The entrance bar/lounge was quite small, but as I snooped around, the large main hall revealed itself, with huge, high ceilings and all the steaming brass pipework of the industrial revolution. The din of group dining was all a little daunting for I, the lone traveller, so I elected to stay within the confines of the much cosier and quieter entrance bar. An unashamed people watcher, I noted once again how different the service industry is back home. In fact, good customer service isn’t really a thing anymore, replaced with detached, too-proud resentment, of only doing a job to make ends meet. Here though, the staff were absolutely part of the furniture, contributors to the vibe, and clearly content with it.
The ceilings bore the marking of graffiti, which added another layer of Národní-style, blue-collar bleakness to the mix and balanced out any shire-like tweeness, leaving an intoxicating atmosphere I was only too happy to sink into. I jumped in head-first for a Kozel Dark beer, as maybe a lighter beer would be too cautious. It would be an experience never to be forgotten.
The pinafore’d waiter worked the beer with all the passion of a battle-hardened blacksmith, manhandling the heavy glass with precise, well-practised actions until it was overflowing with delicious looking foamy dark ale from the impressive brass-vessels above. The now-familiar “beer knife” was drawn and executed in one interconnecting slice, revealing the finished article, dripping with thirst-quenching promise. I’d never been a fan of the European custom of paying the bill last, but to be fiddling about with money at this point would have ruined the experience. Instead, I promptly received a speedily written paper slip etched simply with “Dark”.
I tightly grasped my prize like an envied trophy, heading for the side wall where I could be hidden away the most. I almost felt anxious as I brought the heavy one-litre glass up to my lips. There was no off-putting aroma of chemicals, just the natural grain as it should be. I considered sampling the foaming top first, but the ice-cold dark ale that lay beneath was just too inviting. This was the best beer I’ve ever tested by a mile. The initial impact was cool and crisp, quenching my thirst like a diet coke straight out of the freezer, then there was the wholesome-thick, warming, almost chocolatey experience of the main event. Lastly as the beer went down unhindered with a final flourish, the familiar alcohol spin, reminding me again of my surroundings. Each and every quaff seemed like a separate chapter in itself. At first I looked forward to what was in-store, then midway, I wished I had more, and towards the end all I could think about was a re-fill to start all over.
My attention was usually on people and places, but here it was focused in my tiny corner, to the contents of the glass before me. I was rooted to the spot. Even the consideration of a change of scenery disgusted me. My bill was now etched with Dark plus a five-gate and counting, but this was the best beer in the world for one pound sterling a glass.. Who could wish for more?
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